Merely getting myself in a decent position to return the favour with my sniper rifle was proving problematic, largely thanks to his knack of loosing off just at the point where I was about to take aim. Eventually I struck lucky with my last bullet, only to find that a well-covered machine gun nest was awaiting my arrival around the corner. Dammit.
Other tactics had to be employed.
After a few minutes it became apparent that I'd get a potentially better view if I snuck into the building (handily placed) opposite and ascended the stairs until I could get a good angle on the nest - but that in itself wasn't straightforward, as there remained a concerted enemy presence on every floor. Finally on the top level, it was time to pull out the RPG I'd just acquired and destroy the infernal nest once and for all.
But one thing you realise with BLACK is that it's never as easy as it looks.
Completely unexpectedly, a pair of riot shield-protected, Magnum-wielding guards appeared up the stairs. Not only was this a total shock (having evidently cleared the entire building), it was the worst possible turn of events, given that I was dancing with death on minimum health, and out of regular AK-47 ammo. With the unreliable aim of the shotgun my only respite, and a meagre stock of grenades, Game Over looked certain on at least four occasions before I managed to blow chunks out of their shields and send them back to their maker. Phew.
Then it dawned on me that these guards had actually not just conveniently spawned, but actually sussed out my location from the opposite building and followed me up the stairs to take me down. But before I could take in this improbable event, another two guards repeated the trick 20 seconds later, and suddenly the last great cheating trick of the FPS player - that of hiding from the enemy - was shattered for good.
Ever since the genre came into being, it's always been accepted that retreating to a previously cleared sector offers players a safe haven, but to find out that's no longer the case at such a pivotal part of the level was genuinely palpitating. People talk about games making them scared, but this was the first time in years that anything this unexpected occurred. The only downside about it is that this was the epic final level; that Criterion didn't choose to use the 'hunt them down' trick more is a shame.
In terms of the general enemy AI, it's tough. For the most part it's very much of the 'duck and pop out' variety, but BLACK gets away with it by masking their relative dim-wittery with the sheer weight of numbers. It's not something that you'll dwell on too long, mainly thanks to the distractions offered by the visual spectacle.
Given the team's complete inexperience, BLACK is a remarkably solid first attempt. Perhaps it's this outsiders approach has actually benefited the Guildford-based team, allowing them to take a fresh look at a genre which has - for many years - been stuck in a rut of its own making. Right from the beginning, it's clear that it simply feels right. It has a refined and well-realised weapon selection the encompass all the favourites (with stunning weapon models) from basic pistols right up to RPGs that all pack the right amount of punch (and sound great, too) The controls, meanwhile, hit a happy medium between the graceful fluidity every fast-paced FPS needs and the tightness required for precision aiming on a console pad, with sensible control mappings and the instant realisation that aiming isn't ever going to cause a problem. Even subtle details like the amount of damage you take, the time it takes to finish an enemy off and the ability to fire accurately from distance are well-judged. You have to go a long way to find anything approaching a problem with BLACK, but we don't like to disappoint.
Arguably the exaggerated, lunging death animations take the gloss off an otherwise visually classy game, and some crippling incidences of slowdown give it a somewhat unoptimised feel at time. Throw in some occasional respawning enemy glitches here and there and, again, it's clear the project could have done with a month or two of extra polish.
Given some extra time, BLACK would have been absolutely awesome. For example, the order of the levels is questionable, with the two least interesting being right at the start; levels which barely hint at the stunning quality of what's to come. From first impressions BLACK definitely lacked a real spark, so don't be surprised if it takes a while for the penny to drop.
But some problems mid-game also frustrate. Most memorably, the game has the occasional tendency to neglect to provide players with adequate signposting to your basic objectives. Seemingly impenetrable obstacles, for example, appear impervious, resisting RPG fire yet bizarrely crumbling with a couple of well-placed grenades; something that could have been easily overcome if the person radioing instructions interjected, questioned your movements or gave feedback when things don't work out.
Criterion also could be accused of lacking inspiration when it comes to providing narrative background to why you're on a particular mission, not to mention its dereliction of duty to offering decent, interesting secondary objectives, and - on a related note - gives precious little incentive to actually track down the required items of random tat. Plenty of games down the years have given players the chance to really get under the skin of who you're chasing and why, but Black simply offers little narrative hook of note. As a result, the game lack context, and this missing 'frame' lends hollowness to your actions. Who is Jack? Who are the people you're chasing? What did they do? Why are you there? Instead, all we get is nearly 3000 terrorists to shoot, and as impressive as that is, players deserve more than pure action alone from a blockbuster title. That said, the pre-mission cut-scenes are of the very highest quality, giving a tempting and frustrating hint as to what might have been had Criterion fleshed out BLACK's world with a similarly inspired in-game narrative.
Also, weighing in at just eight levels and a similar number of hours, it's all over before you know it. Short and sweet, for sure, but light in content even by modern gaming standards, with unlockables that amount to little more than the chance to play it on even harder modes. Needless to say, FPS fans the world over also expect - at the very least - some basic deathmatch and CTF multiplayer in any shooter, and online at that. But Criterion risks the wrath of untold number of FPS fans by ignoring one of its most potent features; fans who would otherwise doubtlessly sing the praises of this excellent game.
Thanks to Criterion's otherworldly technical ability to pull off graphical effects that wouldn't look out of place on next gen machines and some truly inspired set-pieces, BLACK is the most progressive and exciting shooter to emerge on the console platforms for years. Even without the chance to play online with foul-mouthed American teenagers (a blessing, some would argue), and a general lack of longevity within the game, it's obvious that BLACK has more than enough going for it in its potent single-player campaign to recommend the game to anyone who believe that happiness is a warm gun.
8 / 10